The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
The key to a scene-stealing supporting turn is often precisely that the movie isn’t all about that character. You’re left wanting more, but if you were to get it you’d likely find the character watered down to fit the mold of a traditional protagonist. It’s why Hannibal Lector is so effective in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but much less so in Hannibal. I doubt that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone would have worked if it had revolved around Jim Carrey’s David Blane-esque shock magician, but it would surely have been more inspired than what we get. The big problem with the film is that Steve Carrell’s Burt is both dislikeable and not even vaguely interesting.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Burt doesn’t give Carrell much comic mileage. He rarely has the chance to act-out and he’s unable to make Burt a prick to root for. The opening sequence, during which awful generic rock music adorns his and Anton Marvelton’s (Steve Buscemi) stage show, is impressively cheesy. But then quartet of writers choose to plough a furrow that seems tiresomely obvious. Childhood friends Burt and Anton now hate each other. Burt is predatory pig for and of course he has lost touch with made him want to perform in the first place; all magic has gone from his act. You can see Burt is set to plot a standard path to redemption, but it’s one he never earns.
It’s all very well to show him up as a complete tit when he attempts to perform his and Anton’s act solo, but the big finale in which he must impress us with his true craft proves unpersuasive. Likewise, we can’t get behind his coupling with browbeaten assistant Olivia Wilde because he’s such a jerk, and because there’s a complete absence of chemistry between the actors. There are occasional glimpses of a more energised, manic Carrell, and on these occasions the movie picks up; A case in point is when he and Anton are suspended above the ground in a plastic cage, an attempt to out derring-do rival act Steve Gray. Perhaps it’s just Carrell’s weak spot; he can play stupid, or naïve or benevolent, but when it comes to self-centredness he’s a bit lost. There needed to be more of his desperation (“He put a dog in my pants, Jane. He put a live dog in my pants. No one’s ever done that to me before”). His misanthropy fails to amuse and his sleaziness is plain tiresome.
Burt and Anton’s act is Siegfried and Roy by way of David Copperfield, who makes a cameo to show what a good sport he is. Steve Buscemi fares much better than Carrell amid this Vegas campery, As an Adam Sandler regular, he knows what it is to slum it in feeble comedies, and he brings guilelessness to Anton that probably wasn’t there in the script. You can certainly see where feeble ideas like his Operation Presto are heading a mile off (“I bring magic, not food and water”).
If Burt never engages, the opposite is true of Gray. No matter how much we are told that he is a “terrible human being and a really bad magician” or “I know he sucks”, everything about Carrey’s performance says otherwise. He may be 10 years older than Carrell, but he’s still got it. Carrey is firing on all cylinders and this is his best comic character in years, a reminder of why he made it so big in the first place He’s a master of antic posturing and, unlike Carrell’s Burt, his arrogance is so zesty and gleeful that we can’t help but be pulled along for the ride with him.
Steve Gray, “Brain Rapist”, is the sort who will tear a card from his cheek and then stitches the flesh back together; he’s not so much a magician as a Jackass. He challenges himself to hold his urine for 12 days, sleeps on red-hot coals, burns “Happy Birthday” into his arm and trepans himself. Oh, and does unspeakable things to a puppy. Whenever he absents the screen it’s for too long. I can’t see that director Don Scardino intended for Carrey to steal the show so completely, but that’s what he does.
Alan Arkin has fun as the inspiration for Burt (looking remarkably like Harvey Keitel when he is “youthed-up”, although James Gandolfini’s billionaire hotel owner is underwritten (it’s amusing to hear that he suggested his son have Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber or Mandy Patinkin perform at his birthday; they missed out not getting Patinkin to cameo).
Whenever Carrey’s onscreen the movie bursts with anarchic brio, making the Carrell sequences even more turgid in comparison. Carrey’s never really gone away, but his lust for mega-hits seems to have dampened of late. It’s just as well since both this and Kick-Ass 2 have been misfires. As the guest star he’s the winner in both cases, though; he can’t get the blame for them bombing and the praise for him as been almost universal. Carrell meanwhile has always mixed studio and indie fare, and since he’s never been a sure thing at the box office he may not be too concerned at Burt’s fizzle. And there’s always Despicable Me 3 to look forward to.